blog / Women candidates in Pacific elections

Thu, 22 October, 2015

Women candidates in Pacific elections

Despite a trend towards increasing numbers of female political representatives globally, the percentage of women parliamentarians in the Pacific only increased from around 3 per cent to 4.3 per cent from 1997 to 2014. Of 190 countries surveyed by the inter-parliamentary union this year, five of the ten countries with the worst record of women's participation in parliament are in the Pacific. Today we’re looking at some of the recent news stories that have highlighted this issue in Samoa, Solomon Islands and PNG - and what is being done about it. 



Pacific Beat recently reported on a new United Nations program focused on increasing the number of women in Samoa's parliament. The four-day workshop to prepare leaders to be MPs and participate in elections is currently being taken by twelve Samoan women who plan to run in the country’s 2016 national election. Currently, 3 of the nation’s 49 representatives are female.

This 2014 paper from the Centre for Samoan Studies at the National University of Samoa, discusses some of the cultural and systemic barriers that have been preventing women from being elected to governance positions at a village level - including traditional male appointments to village government. 

The paper states that because women are mainly excluded from leadership roles, there are few female role models of this kind. The low participation of women in village government unfortunately translates into low numbers in Samoa’s government too - which has among the lowest level of female participation in the world.

It is an odd situation, given that women have approximately equal shares of skilled employment in Samoa (including equal numbers of women occupying public sector management positions). Samoa’s National Government has also made several commitments to gender equality, including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

However, Samoa’s constitution recognizes customary institutions, which are enshrined in the electoral system, and The Government has no power to influence the gender composition of these village councils. Because of this, gender equity activists are finding other ways to encourage and facilitate the election of competent women to parliament.

One of the more creative ways has been through media representation. In September, a 10-episode radio drama spearheaded by the UN and titled 'Fa'atino lou vala'auina' (‘Follow Your Calling’) was broadcast across Samoa, as reported by Pacific Beat here

This radio drama series tells the story of a Samoan woman who contemplates and pursues a path in politics. Culturally and linguistically specific, it shows how she negotiates the challenges of gaining the support of her family for her political aspirations, and balancing the commitments of her personal life with the demands of campaigning.

A similar radio program was tried first in the Solomon Islands.



ANU research showed last year that female candidates in the Solomon Islands are at a financial and social disadvantage compared to men - which hinders their ability to gain the necessary influence to win votes. Terence Wood described in this post last month how the “playing field of Solomon Islands politics is heavily tilted against them”, despite survey results that indicate most Solomon Islands voters are open to the idea of voting for a woman. 

The barriers are such that, since independence, there has never been more than one woman MP in the Solomon Islands’ parliament at any one time - in 37 years of independence,  only 3 women have ever been elected, and none of those MPs held office for extended periods. Although the number of female candidates has gradually increased, women are not being elected to parliament more often.

Taking into account the reality of how elections are fought and won by male politicians, Wood suggests that potential women candidates could be helped by donors to gain reputations as people who can be trusted to provide “material assistance”; a long term approach that would establish women candidates as bringers of resources and essential development programs. 

Meanwhile, back in June, Joselyn Ipei, a provincial member in Temotu whose election was an historic landslide victory, called on women to take a greater role in their communities, in order to give themselves a fighting chance in the male dominated Melanesian political arena. Ipei highlighted that her own years of dedicated, visible service to her community got her elected.



In a post yesterday for Dev Policy Blog, Theresa Meki provided an overview of the performance of women candidate in Papua New Guinea elections since independence, describing it as “stagnant”. This is despite the positive development of an increasing number of female candidates running in national elections, and the election of three women to parliament in 2012.

Papua New Guinean women have actually been running for seats since 1972. Thanks largely due to the National Council of Women and NGO training workshops to encourage female candidates in the lead up to the 1997 election, there was a significant increase in the number of women running for office (from 16 in 1992 to 48 in 1997).

More recently, 135 female candidates ran in the 2012 elections - they comprised 4 per cent of the total 3,447 candidates. However, only three of these women won: Delilah Gore (Sohe Open), Loujaya (Toni) Kouza (Lae Open) and Julie Soso, for the Eastern Highlands provincial seat. Meki’s says that in the past three elections, there was an average of one female candidate for every 28 male candidates.

And despite the implementation of the limited preferential voting (LPV) system, which was predicted to empower female voters and subsequently female candidates, the increase in women voters and candidates has not yet led to an increase in female parliamentarians. The data shows that most female candidates get an average of 2 per cent of the first preference votes in their electorates and are thus eliminated from successive counts early on. 

The three women who won seats in 2012 benefited from LPV and successive counts, so the implementation of this system has been an important step. MP Julie Soso, for example, acknowledged the role LPV played in her win, as it was the second and third preference votes that secured her victory. Since political parties tend to endorse strong candidates likely to win - and these tend not to be women - most female candidates run as independents.  

What is clear is that more reforms are required to increase the number of female candidates and the number of women in parliament. Port Moresby’s Governor Powes Parkop recently told Radio Australia that legislation is required to compel political parties to have at least 10 per cent female membership - with penalties for parties who do not comply.

“The reality is there are so many things that stack up against a woman candidate,” he said in the interview. “Unless they are supported by the law, they are not likely to have an equal playing field with their male counterparts”. He disagreed with MP Delilah Gore, who opposes a gender quota for parties and said that women needed to step forward and show leadership within their communities first. 

Governor Parkok points out that Gore and the other two female MPs in national parliament are the exception - that men still dominate politics across PNG, making it harder for women to be recognised as leaders. He believes that without legally compelling parties to train, promote and endorse female candidates, PNG may have to wait another 50 years or more to approach gender parity in government. 

He also rejected the notion that instituting a quota system for parties would lead to unfit political candidates or would even be harmful to women. Rather, Parkok says, the idea is to expose female leaders to the community so as to normalise the notion that women can be as effective as men in those roles, and have much to offer. 

Parkok acknowledges it will be a difficult getting this idea approved by parliament. This latest proposal is included in the Integrity of Political Parties Bill, which has yet to be tabled, and the Governor has vowed to fight hard for the reform. In any case, ensuring the interests and perspectives of women are equally represented in parliament is essential to a healthy nation.

As Bougainville’s MP Francesca Semoso said to Radio New Zealand in June this year:

“Women are needed on the floor of parliament, in that important decision making circle because that is where the laws are made that is where decisions are made that benefits people of any nation. And most importantly what has been lacking and what has been missing terribly on the floor of parliament around Melanesia around the Pacific is women representation that is needed.”

RELATED POST: Josephine Getsi’s historic win


WORDS by Pauline Vetuna.


Image Credits:

Image 2 - table from Inter-Parliamentary Union

Image 3 - Samoa Government Building in Apia, Samoa. By Teinesavaii 

Image 4 - edited table from Inter-Parliamentary Union

Image 5 - The inside of the House of Parliament in Honiara, Solomon Islands. By Dan Hetherington

Image 6 - The Papua New Guinean Parliament building. By Steve Shattuck

Image 7 - Electoral Commission workers handout polling schedules to candidates at the mock poll booth set up in Port Moresby, National Capital District. By DFAT


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